Was Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to love their enemies in Matthew 5:43 intended to be understood literally?

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ESV

If so, is this a departure of God’s character in the Old Testament, which constantly visits the enemies of Israel with punishment and destruction and even sometimes commands the Israelites to destroy their enemies?

Consider, for example, how God sends his spirit upon Samson to bring death and destruction against the Philistines (Jdg 14:19; 15:15; 16:30), arch-enemies of the Israelites. Did Jesus expect his followers to love their "Philistines", or treat them as Samson did?

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    Is there another way to interpet the commandment to love our enemies? – user862 Dec 17 '14 at 6:54
  • @H3br3wHamm3r81 it could be hyperbole, and other commands in the Sermon on the Mount usually are read that way. Of course I don't think it is hyperbole, but it isn't axiomatically literal. – Jack Douglas Dec 17 '14 at 18:50
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  • "We" is meant to refer to Christians who seek to follow biblical teachings. Would it be possible to offer feedback as to how this question could be rephrased to fit Christianity.SE? – user6509 Dec 18 '14 at 8:06
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    @user6509 - We've edited the question to conform to the site guidelines. I think it raises the question you're interested in, without implying that anyone reading it is a "Christian who seeks to follow biblical teachings" (since this is not a Christian site), as Dan♦ mentioned. Please feel free to tweak if we've not caught your point sufficiently well. – Dɑvïd Dec 18 '14 at 14:28

There are two questions here. One is on the 'literalism' of the text. The other is contingent on the first but stands alone as something like, "Jesus wasn't God, was he?"

First question, yes. Jesus' teachings in the "Sermon on the Mount" section (5:1-7:23) are not parable nor are they allegorical. The trouble is in the definitions. So, if I may, I think it best to drill down a bit on what Jesus meant by "love" (agapao). The sense is more of holding others in a high regard or a desire for another's welfare (Thayer's Lexicon). When this teaching is connected to the rest of the "sermon", it makes sense. Jesus rebukes our anger, our insulting, our lust (which objectifies), and our bent toward retaliation. Love, then, is our attitude toward others who we might otherwise find disagreeable or even hateful. Jesus consistently calls his disciples to consider the welfare of others as their own.

The second question is a bit more difficult but central to understanding the arch of biblical teaching. It is unfair to characterize "the God of the OT" as the "judgmental God" because he did NOT "constantly [visit] the enemies of Israel with punishment and destruction". Three cases will suffice.

Numbers 20:14-21. Edom refuses Israel's passage through their territory. God does not destroy them.

Joshua 9. The Gibeonites, in fear of God, deceive the Israelites into a treaty. God allows them to become servants, yes. But they are not destroyed.

Jonah. The classic example of God's mercy on an "ungodly" city.

It is also unfair to characterize Jesus as the "loving God of the NT". Jesus did teach much about love. But he also taught about judgment (i.e.: Matt. 25:31-46).


In Luke 6, are we to take Jesus' words about our enemies literally? Are we to stand and get beaten for his name's sake? Are we to truly give when we are stolen from? I say yes. To walk as Christ walked is very difficult and only done by His Spirit which leads and guides and empowers us. Have you ever seen a person reach out in forgiveness to someone that has murdered their loved one? This is Christ in action.

  • Janet - forgiveness in the Christian New Testament appears in connection with financial obligations (that is, somebody owes money to somebody). Is there any interpretation open, then, that the one who is forgiven also loses credibility (that is, they are no longer credit-worthy to receive more lending of money)? If you agree, can you provide us your thoughts/analysis? If you are willing, please re-edit your post to draw light on the texts that help us understand the nuance between forgiving others (who now have no credibility with us), but who remain lovable notwithstanding. Very Respectfully, – Joseph Jan 24 '15 at 16:52

Loving enemies seems more like a paradox if we think enemy is what we have chosen to call them. Love the people you are against. That can feel like a call to fight for the team you are fighting against.

If we think enemy is what they have chosen to call us, love makes sense.

  • "While we were yet enemies of God" Romans 5 describes our position against him, not his position against us.

If God is opposed to someone they are done for. He instead is winning over the ones like me who have been against him.

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange. We are glad you stopped by and hope you stay. When you have a minute, check out the site tour. In particular, read the section on what constitutes a good answer and revise your post to either cite references that back your position or to more thoroughly explain how you get this interpretation from the text itself... Your answer seems to focus more on application than authorial intent. Since we are not a Christian forum, we don't generally deal with application, but leave that up to the reader to decide themselves. – ThaddeusB Oct 29 '15 at 15:15

Here, "love means" to will the good of the other, not to foolishly anticipate or seek a forthcoming friendship with; hence there follows: "and pray for them" (v. 44). "Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," (v. 48) refers to the perfect love of the Father which it is here enjoined by Christ to emulate: "in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We were the enemies of God, and therefore we must also "love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). If we love only those who love us, but withhold it from those who do not love us, we are selfish, and that is not love. For "love is patient, is kind: love envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Therefore, true love hopes for and "delights" in the conversion of sinners, not their demise, according to the character of God: "Think ye that I delight in the death of him who is wicked? saith the Lord, Would I not rather that he repent from his ways and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23).

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